How not to be seen

Monday, 1 March 2004, 4:15 PM EST

It's never been easier to be a spy. Students of the spooky arts may think fondly of the first Elizabethan era, when fantastic figures like Sir Francis Walsingham ran rings of agents across Europe and decrypted messages hidden in barrels of beer, but back then it was diabolically easy to keep a secret. You picked your trusted confidant, walked out of earshot of anyone else and plotted away to your black heart's content. Then some blighter discovered electricity and everything changed.

For a while, things weren't too bad. You could have a microphone in your suspect's office and run wires to your listening post, or you could try and hide a radio transmitter nearby -- but the combination of huge valves and crude transmitter technology made such exercises easy to detect. Along came the transistor, which shrank bugs to the size of a broad bean, and the spies were very happy. But not as happy as when integrated circuits arrived -- not only could you make surveillance equipment as small as you liked, you could build in masking techniques that rendered them very hard to detect. A basic bug needs but two transistors: with modern chips packing upwards of a billion on each sliver of silicon, the only limit to surveillance technology is the imagination of the spies and their ability to physically place the devices.

By Rupert Goodwins at ZDNet.

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